What challenges lie ahead for Boris Johnson in 2021?

Boris Johnson has taken the UK out of the European Union and secured an eleventh-hour trade deal – amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But the challenges still ahead for  the Prime Minister suggest 2021 is not going to be any easier than last year.

– Coronavirus

The approval of two coronavirus vaccines, and the possibility of more to come, offers hope of a way out of the crisis which has already claimed more than 88,000 lives in the UK.

But the months ahead will be hard, coinciding with the toughest time of year for the NHS.

A new variant of coronavirus, which is thought to spread more easily, has led to most of England being placed under the most stringent restrictions.

Reducing case numbers, as well as ensuring the vaccines are rolled out quickly, will be no mean feat for the Government this year.

– The economy

The forecast 11.3% hit to gross domestic product – a measure of the size of the economy – in 2020 is the worst slump since the Great Frost of 1709.

The Office for Budget Responsibility’s bleak assessment is that it will be late 2022 before it recovers to its pre-virus level. By 2025, the economy will be 3% smaller than had been forecast before the crisis.

How the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine works
(PA Graphics)

The public finances have been wrecked by the pandemic as Chancellor Rishi Sunak was forced to borrow almost £400 billion to fund the health response and keep millions of jobs and businesses on financial life support.

Unemployment is forecast to hit 2.6 million by the middle of 2021.

– Foreign affairs

The UK holds the rotating presidency of the G7 group of industrialised nations in 2021, giving Mr Johnson the opportunity to host world leaders, including the new US president Joe Biden.

The election of Mr Biden could see the UK-US relationship strengthened, as the new administration is likely to place a higher value on international diplomacy than Donald Trump’s White House.

The UK also hosts the delayed Cop26 climate change summit – another chance for Mr Johnson to show he is on the same page as Mr Biden, who has promised to overturn Mr Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate accord.

The November 2020 forecast at a glance #SpendingReviewpic.twitter.com/lKL7YCyiEG

— Office for Budget Responsibility (@OBR_UK) November 25, 2020

But the UK’s standing on the world stage could be diminished by the decision to renege on a commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on overseas aid.

The UK, in common with the US and other Western nations, will also have to continue to deal with an increasingly assertive China, although tensions might be reduced if Mr Biden’s approach is less belligerent than his predecessor’s.

And, as it has been for decades, the Middle East remains a place where tensions run high. The assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist  – which Tehran has blamed on Israel – illustrates the dangers in the region.

– Social care

“I am announcing now, on the steps of Downing Street, that we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared,” Mr Johnson proclaimed in his first speech as Prime Minister in July 2019.

But there is little sign of that pre-prepared plan and coronavirus has ripped through care homes across the country.

Dominic Cummings
Dominic Cummings’ departure leaves Boris Johnson without a key aide for the next phase of his premiership (Yui Mok/PA)

Successive prime ministers have failed to come up with a solution to how to pay for the care required by an ageing population.Number 10 said the Government had sought views from across Parliament, but the issue was complex and it would take time to develop a solution to the problem.

– The unknown

A year ago, no-one could have expected the devastation wrought by Covid-19.

All prime ministers are buffeted by what Harold Macmillan allegedly described as “events, dear boy, events”.

Terrorism, cyber attacks, flooding, a spark in a geopolitical tinderbox – they are all potential disasters awaiting a prime minister.

But with key aides Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain replaced by a new-look team in No 10, it will be intriguing to see how Mr Johnson responds to the challenges to come.

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